Who would have thought that growing up in country South Australia with eleven siblings would perfectly prepare you for a career in the music industry?
Adelaide based chanteuse Ronnie Taheny recalls her childhood in Edithburgh, Yorke Peninsula: ‘We were feral, we were free-range, we lived on the sea, had horses, no one told us we couldn’t, very ‘Lord of the Flies’ – although no one had a conch’.
This chaotic, and dysfunctional environment of dog-eat-dog and the absence of a comfort zone fostered in Ronnie a resilience: ‘you learn fast, think on your feet, and stay calm in the eye of the storm.’
‘I couldn’t wait to get on the road and go - now I can breathe – under the suffocation of belonging in a clan. I could go 40 years (on tour) and not fragment, and think it’s as natural as anything.’
After thirty-five years in the music industry which includes 8 album releases, and over twenty-five years of touring locally and abroad Ronnie is overflowing with entertaining anecdotes that always erupt into a hilarious climax. Rowena Garcia from Manaboutadl sat down, stood up, and rocked out with Ronnie Taheny at her beach side apartment to discuss her thirty-five year career in music and how she turns heads with songs about transvestites.
Ronnie is the personification of down-to-earth. She carries with her an ocean glow and her smiling eyes show an eagerness to delight during our conversation. Her quick-witted sense of speaking has me in stitches. For example, when I ask her how she managed to navigate foreign language whilst living and touring overseas she explains: ‘I have enough to get me in jail, but not enough to get out’.
Ronnie’s apartment is minimalist. A gorgeous grand piano dominates the room as well as an assortment of stringed instruments that hang from the wall. Her apartment décor reflects the neighbouring ocean scene that is so incredibly close you feel like you could touch it from the balcony.
‘Everyone has a different modus operandi – you know mine is the beach, every day for the last hundred years. I never go to the beach with anyone, that’s my shrine. Laying prone on the beach with a book. Listening to the waves breathing and warmth through to your bones – how good does it get!
Having worked alongside the crème de la crème of singer-songwriters such as Ani diFranco, Luka Bloom, David Gray, and Billy Bragg I ask Ronnie the impossible question of career highlights: ‘Playing my first major European event - Galway Arts Festival (with Ani deFranco in 1995); the day I started needing A1 posters, the many fabulous, kind and generous strangers and often the resulting lifelong friendships; slowly travelling through a deserted Middle East after 9/11 for 3 months; being a geek all day in the Alexandria Library (Egypt).'
Ronnie has a strong sense of independence. She has worked incredibly hard to carve out her own niche in the music industry and discusses how her philosophy to only rely on herself, not needing to rely on anyone else, has enabled her success.
‘I just want to be able to do exactly what I’m on the earth to for – which of course I do.’ That means getting better at your craft, and it means producing something that is able to be sung back. And my job as a performer is to be able to make people walk out feeling a lot better about themselves than when they walked in. That’s our duty and obligation as artists. And to make them go “was that fourth song about a transvestite?”’.
We move to speaking about the music industry and the many changes that the era of digitalisation has brought about. ‘I observe that the younger, emerging artists I deal with are more together, level-headed, sober, mannerly and modest than ninety percent of the rock/folk/roots musos of my time. Where did the ‘sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll’ go? No-one is interested, they’ve kinda got their heads together. Dysfunction is much less, they are not driven by madness, you know the Bon Scott’s and borderline personalities, the self-destruction has gone asunder. Physical touring as the basis of one’s career is no longer mandatory these days, it can be set-up and streamed online live. Of course, seeing live events will never go out of fashion - we’re human - but it’s only one of myriad of digital entertainment options all vying for our limited time and dollars.’
Digging deeper we begin to philosophise about song writing and music. Ronnie theorises: ‘(it is) the enmeshment between, words and the melody simultaneously… that is the magic.’ ‘Lyrical prosody – this is where the jigsaw puzzle comes together and that’s the exciting part.’ ‘It’s useless me trying to do the lyric first and adding music, I’ve tried a million times to – spectacular failures - and I always end up abandoning it and they end up being just spoken words cos I can’t work that way around.’ This craft of writing and performing of songs has taken Ronnie around the world. Within a year of relocating to Ireland she found her debut single at #5 in the Irish charts, was chosen by the industry as Ireland’s “Best Unsigned Act” followed by a trip to the USA that included showcases in Central Park and the legendary CBGB’s Gallery.
‘Always, my aim has been to write a great pop song. I love pop songs. No fat, no ponderous stuff, get on with it. But you gotta be careful when you say the word “pop”. It has a real stigma attached to it. When I say a great pop song I mean something that is beautifully constructed – you can sing the chorus by the second chorus coming, it’s an anthem in a way. I think one of the best pop songs ever written, and everybody either hated it or loved it, is the Proclaimers ‘I’m going to be (500 miles)’. Like, how simple is that tune? How brilliant does it work?’ Thanks Ronnie – it’s in my head now!
But like any song writer there must be times when you are creatively stuck? ‘I remember going to see a dance theatre piece at the Adelaide Festival one year and I’d been dealing with a song and couldn’t do the transition between out of the chorus and into the bridge - wasn’t working. And so I’m at this dance watching this show and loving it, you know, the human body in movement is a fantastic thing, the grace – wow. And there I am and all it was was someone going off (stage) and how the lighting followed them and morphed and switched over to another one and that transition solved my dilemma. Ah, of course, one goes off and one comes on like a cross-fade.’
When Ronnie isn’t behind the piano, or soaking up sun at the beach she runs her own fully independent record label and management service Arty Records. ‘In 1992, record company wisdom declared one’s use-by date was age 25 let alone 32.
I knew as a young child that I’d travel the world playing music so I didn’t have to conform to that narrow band of conventional thinking nor was I waiting for the music industry’s permission to have a career so I simply bypassed them. I planned to give Europe a go for two years but then suddenly it was fifteen! By then I knew the “formula” to running a sustainable original music career overseas. Arty Records essentially provides a step-by-step strategy for artists to run a sustainable original-music career in the real world. It’s really practical and fool-proof for any indie artist who’s not allergic to work. They can’t believe how fast their career moves once they get onto a razor-sharp, tailored, long-term plan. Then apply it! The demand’s been unbelievable to me. Speaks volumes about the dearth of real, practical, applicable career education being offered by the Oz government. What’s going on there? Christ knows. But, lucky me! I get to lecture this at the Conservatorium of Music too which is a great gig!
I ask Ronnie what she thinks needs to improve for the Adelaide music scene to thrive. ‘Firstly, a shift in attitude that “Adelaide is shite and Melbourne and Sydney is where it’s at”. I’m sick of hearing that one for 35 years. Zero originality. Sheep mentality. Thinking the eastern seaboard is your answer is still extremely parochial. Those Australian cities will also become disappointing within a year.
Our artists need to be thinking globally, perhaps go live and pitch yourself without compromise to a massive overseas city or market’.
Ronnie’s final show ‘The Last Swim’ is happening at The Governor Hindmarsh on Saturday 3 February 2018 – but will it really be her the last live performance? ‘Well, the event’s sub-title is: “Jump Before You’re Pushed” which is an adage worth pondering for any artist over 55. I’m still open to selected events but ones where I no longer am the entrepreneur who takes all the risks.
So, in keeping with the baton-passing, one of Arty Record’s bright new clients, Zac Eden will open the night. Then I’ll do an anthology-based solo set on 11-string guitar and piano then bring on the brilliant Jarrad Payne (drums), Flik Freeman (bass) and Lainie Jamieson (2nd keys). Friends from Denmark, Ireland, New Zealand and interstate flying in for it, plus a Southern Yorke Peninsula infestation – and that’s a warning. Oh, and there’s a surprise at the end of the first set.’
She is also celebrating a golden anniversary with The Governor Hindmarsh, where she has performed annually for the last twenty-five years. So, what can people expect coming to a Ronnie Taheny show? ‘Not to be bored by a one-trick pony. Lyrics that hopefully turn a few cogs. Entertainment. True, warped tales from the road plus a string of ad libs anchored by the occasional song. Spoken word pieces, energy, physical muscle, sweat and far too much stage-fright underpinning the lot.’
Ronnie Taheny ‘The Last Swim’ with special guest Zac Eden
Saturday 3 February 2018 | 8pm
The Gov (Main Room)
Tickets for are on sale through oztix: here
Images: Rowena Garcia and Janine Hartwig